Thursday, July 15, 2004

Arlee Powwow

Somehow an earlier post about the Arlee powwow was lost. I'm trying it again. Over the July 4th weekend I ventured up to Arlee, Montana for the 116th annual Arlee powwow. It was an amazing event attended by Native Americans from the USA and Canada and plenty of non-natives alike. The powwow is a celebration made even more important by the coincidence with the holiday weekend. Originally, during this time of year, tribes from the area would send their boys out to become men. They would hunt and also battle other boys from other tribes. The ones who returned would gather in the river valley to dance and celebrate and also to mourn for the ones who didn't return. This ritual was replaced with the Powwow. Now they celebrate with dance and honor those who've passed on. Their dance also honors native Veteran's and I was honored to meet an Vietnam Veteran wearing the Navy Cross, a Purple heart,a Vietnam campaign medal and many others I did not recognize.

I was lucky enough to witness the grand entry, a portion of the powoww dedicated to traditional dance and costume. I saw over 400 dancers enter the pavilion, from Chippewa-Cree & Blackfoot to Kootenai and Salish. They entered in a big circle with each dancer wearing the traditional costume of his or her tribe. First came the honor guard, which on this grand entry was staffed by Chippewa, then came the older men, then older women forming a circle on the outside, then the young men strutting their stuff and dancing in their unique manner, then the young women forming a circle inside the older women, then the young children. The young .Powwow boys all seemed very proud.

The skyline was full of tepees, RV's and tents set up by the Native participants. The Powwow was a five-day event, with four of the days open to the public. There were traditional games (the stick game was so fun to watch), craft booths, food and even some gambling in addition to the dancing. The elders sat and talked and the young people ran around playing games, flirting and tried to look cool. Arlee is not a big town and is on the reservation, so I was really surprised by how nice the fairgrounds were.

I read the biography of one of the older dancers, who is an elder in the Kootenai tribe, a once large nation from the area now known as western Montana and Northern Idaho, who now number around 400 and are confined to a small area near Lake Pend Orielle in northern Idaho. He remembers how the dance used to strictly be to honor others or to dance for others and how it started to become a competitor in the 1940's and now brings in more people who dance for money than to honor their people. He was very sad about that and says he still dances to honor his people or to help someone in need. He is a very kind and wise man. He also was very upset about all the trash and the health of the Indian people. He said the young people were not honoring the Earth with all their trash...and there was quite a bit of trash thrown about.

While I was at the powwow I had so much fun. The costumes and dance are so beautiful. I saw my friends Kay Kiely and Gita Saedi and Kay's son Hayden. Gita is doing a documentary on Native Americans right now, so I am looking forward to hearing about her work. I went to the Powwow with the Simmons family and Nick & Alex (7 & 5) were pretty impressed by the costumes and turtle shells, animal pelts and skulls.

But while I was there I never really looked beyond the surface. I tend to identify with my Cherokee heritage but would never express that to a true native and it was only after I left the powwow that I started thinking about the plight of the people. Looking back, I now realize how many sick people I saw at the powwow and also the large number of obese natives who were there. I looked into it a little bit and watched part of a show last night dealing with this exact issue. It seems that before WWII, many native peoples were still trying to eat a traditional diet with plants and vegetables that they had been eating for centuries. They were still largely living outside of American consumerism...I guess American consumerism wasn't in full swing before WWII anyway. During WWII, many Indian men joined the service and the poverty on reservations worsened. US Government programs, designed to supplement food during this time, introduced foods that were high in fat content and the Indian diet changed. Many of these men did not return after the war and in many cases, reservation life was already changing and welfare life was being introduced. The National Institute for Health has been studying the Pima Indians of Arizona, who are the most obese group of people in the USA and have determined that there actually is a genetic difference that contributes to obesity and diabetes in Indians and much of this is triggered by diet. Amazing. The amount of diabetes is astounding, now at over 50%. Read this article for more information.

The Powwow is a time to celebrate and celebrate everyone did. It was a great way to spend the holiday weekend. I do hope the plight of the Indian people can be addressed and hope to get involved with organizations aimed at improving life for Native Americans.
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